Caught in the crosshairs of conflicting colonial interest and of the problem of external control by European nations, the early colonial nation we now call America needed fresh direction. In the early 1700s, half of all marriageable age girls were pregnant before or without the benefit of marriage. So many opportunists had immigrated to the colonies who desired to “get rich quick” that national values had taken a radical slump. As the Western wilderness opened up, men sometimes abandoned their families, never to be seen again, bound to take advantage of new opportunities. The colonies were in moral turmoil.
That is when the first Great Awakening came. That awakening – affecting both the north and the south – bound the governments of the colonies together to create the mindset needed to form a new nation. The man who most clearly fused the national conscience together was not Washington or Jefferson. It was not Franklin or Adams. It was a figure almost forgotten to the national public today – a preacher named George Whitefield. Whitefield’s preaching drew thousands. In some cases, ten thousands, and that is according to Ben Franklin, himself. The principles of Christianity that he declared galvanized the colonies together around a core of Biblical ideals.
Just 20 years after the constitution was signed and sealed, the nation was again in spiritual and moral trouble. In the wake of the American Revolution (following 1776-1781), the nation was in a severe moral slump. “Drunkenness became epidemic. Out of a population of five million, 300,000 were confirmed drunkards; they were burying fifteen thousand of them each year. Profanity was of the most shocking kind. For the first time in the history of the American settlement, women were afraid to go out at night for fear of assault. Bank robberies were a daily occurrence.”
The Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Marshall, declared in a letter to the Bishop of Virginia, James Madison, that the Church ‘was too far gone ever to be redeemed.’ Across the ocean, Voltaire’s lethal declarations were rattling Europe. Among the colonies, Tom Paine was his echo, “Christianity will be forgotten in thirty years”.
The Church was in trouble. There was no a bright spot to be found. The Methodists, whose fires had been lit by John and Charles Wesley, were in a season in which they were losing more members than they were gaining. The Baptists too confessed to “their most wintry season.” The Presbyterians in their General Assembly had officially deplored the nation’s ungodliness, but with no effect. In a typical Congregational church of New England, not one young person had joined the fellowship in almost two decades. The Church had lost the younger generation. Lutheran leaders were languishing so that they were engaged in discussions about uniting with Episcopalians. Sadly, the Episcopalians were more desperate than Lutherans. The office of the Protestant Episcopal Bishop of New York, Bishop Samuel Provost, had ceased to function. He had taken up other employment because there was no one to confirm to faith or ministry.
The few Christians on the seven College and University campuses that had been founded as Christian colleges for the training of ministers were in hiding. They communicated in code. They were openly scorned and ridiculed. At Williams College they held mock communion services. At Dartmouth they put on anti-Christian plays. Some campuses were known for wild living – they had become party schools. Drunkenness was common. Students rioted. Chapels had been abandoned. Gambling cards fell out of the chapel Bible at Harvard. A poll taken at Harvard failed to find one believer among the entire student body. Princeton was more Evangelical. There they found two believers in the student body, but they stood against an entire student body that, with the exception of only five, proudly belonged to the filthy speech movement. On one campus, students took a Bible out of a church and burned it publicly.
Then the 2nd Great Awakening came. Some 500,000 were saved under the ministry of Finney alone. With a population of six million, this meant that one-in-twelve, 8% of the population was saved in a short season of time. Whole cities came under the power of God. Interfaith camp meetings broke out in the backwoods of Kentucky and spread down into the Carolinas. By 1835, when the Second Great Awakening had run its course, twice as many Americans numbered themselves as church members as before the awakening (from five to ten per cent of the population since 1800). The Second Great Awakening saved the nation.
The 3rd Great Awakening was started by a spark from the Anson Street Revival that had impacted Charleston, SC. A year later, in New York, within six months of the start of the Noon-time Marketplace prayer gatherings, meetings were taking place in every possible venue. The whole city was praying. Ships coming into the harbor came under the influence of the radiating, and convicting power of the Holy Spirit. One of the things that gave impetus to the 3rd Great Awakening was the Bank Panic, which was interpreted as Divine judgment against a nation that had made mammon their god. Samuel I. Prime, chief editor of the daily New York Observer wrote, “As long as men transact business on unsound principles, they will be punished. The law of trade, as well as the law of God, necessitate the penalty.”
At its peak, there was an estimated 50,000 converts per week. During a two year period, 10,000 were joining churches weekly, and Sunday schools flourished. People paid off debts. Taverns by the hundreds closed down. There was also an increased concern in helping the needy and destitute, with great growth in volunteer work, and the financing of the work. The movement swept the country. In distant cities, hundreds of shops posted signs in their windows, “Closed for Prayer – Open later!” Whole cities were seeking God.  Within two years, a million were saved out of a population of some 35-30 million.
Can God do it again?
This is an excerpt from the Praying Church Handbook, Volume II. The volumes can be ordered at alivepublications.org.
 J. Edwin Orr, Prayer Bought Revival See: http://www.sermonindex.net/modules/newbb/viewtopic.php?topic_id=9110&forum=40&3.
 Anfuso, Francis, and Gary M. Beasley. Spirit-Led Evangelism. South Lake Tahoe: Christian Equippers International, 1986. Orr, J. Edwin. The Event of the Century: The 1857-1858 Awakening. Wheaton, IL: International Awakening Press, 1989. Pratney, Winkie. Revival: Principles to Change the World. Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1983. “The Religious Revival.” The New York Times 20 March 1858. (no author listed) “The Time for Prayer: The Third Great Awakening.” Christian History Summer 1989: 32-33. (no author listed) Whitaker, Colin. Great Revivals. London: Marshall Pickering, 1990. Rev. ed.